Selling Yarns


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How Maningrida artists market their work

Selling Yarns 1: Australian Indigenous textiles and good business in the 21st century

August 2006

How Maningrida artists market their work was delivered by Apolline Kohen as part of the Selling Yarns conference held in Darwin in 2006. Kohen's paper demonstrated how Maningrida fibre artists adapted their skills and invented new forms of fibre art to gain further recognition as artists and to get a greater financial return.



For thousands of years Aboriginal men and women have produced practical fibre accessories according with the oldest conventions of designs which dictate that form follows function. This all changed in Maningrida in 1994 when Lena Yarinkura produced her first fibre camp dog. Ever since then Maningrida fibre artists have been experimenting with the creation of new forms. Today Maningrida is home to an energetic, hot and funky art movement that encourages artists to give expression to their wild creativity. Maningrida Arts and Culture (MAC) worked hard to develop markets to support this unusual new art form.

In western Arnhem Land, the art of fibre has a long history that goes back tens of thousands of years. Countless depictions in the rich body of rock art from the west-central escarpment plateau show the importance of fibre objects, both for utilitarian and ceremonial purposes.

The art market started in Maningrida when it was recognized that functional items such as dilly bags had commercial value as trade goods. Since then, producers have adapted their skills to make fibre works with greater appeal for the art market. In the past, it has been a struggle to market the fibre production, and the financial return to artists remained much lower than artists producing paintings or timber sculptures. To encourage and nurture production of fibre works arts centres like Maningrida put a smaller mark-up on fibre production to enable fibre artists to get a better income. While this policy is certainly helping but has not resolved the problem. Repositioning the perception of the fibre production by the public and inventing new fibre forms were a better approach for Maningrida artists.

This paper is not about 'fine art' versus 'craft' or to convince the audience that a dilly bag belongs to the fine art category. This paper will demonstrate how Maningrida fibre artists have adapted their skills and invented new forms of fibre art to gain further recognition as artists and to get a better financial return.

From utilitarian fish traps to works of art featured in prominent commercial galleries

Lorna Jin-gubarrangunyja was born in 1952. She is a Burarra fibre artist, living at Yilan outstation, who has been regularly producing artworks for Maningrida Arts and Culture since the 1980s. She was often making colourful twined pandanus dilly bags, mats, string bags and baby shade covers. In 1995, she participated in a landmarks touring fibre exhibition Maningirda: the language of weaving which featured two fish traps by Burarra male artist Raymond Walabirr (now deceased). This exhibition aimed at repositioning fibre production into the fine art category. It succeeded at some levels but it failed in changing the overall perception of fibre art by the general public or commercial galleries. For example, no one offered to do a commercial fibre show dedicated to the production of mats or baskets after this major exhibition. In 2002, Jin-gubarrangunyja made her first fish trap, learning this technique from her husband George Ganyjibala, as traditionally men were making fish traps. She now uses fish trap forms as the basis for sculptural works of art. Jin-gubarrangunyja innovates with forms and colours, using diverse weaving techniques to make sculptures that have their origin in the traditional fish trap techniques. The utilitarian purpose of the fish trap is no longer the main focus of her production. She re-explores traditional techniques to create contemporary and innovative works of art and works with diverse fibre such as pandanus (pandanus spiralis) that she dyes with natural colors, jungle vine (Malaisia scandens) and grass (cyperus javanicus).

A year after her first attempt at making a fish trap, in 2003, Jin-gubarrangunyja won the Wandjuk Marika Award at the 20th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) with a colourful pandanus fish trap. She is now recognised as a leading fibre artist and participates regularly in group exhibitions in commercial galleries. Interestingly enough, her fish trap production has generated an interest in her dilly bags that are now exhibited along with her fish trap forms. Through innovation and working on a bigger scale, Jin-gubarrangunyja has established herself as a successful fibre artist, gaining public recognition for her work and a financial income comparable with artists working in other media. She has also inspired other Maningrida artists to make fish traps. Now, more than 20 artists make fish trap forms on a regular basis, including three men who have switched from painting to fibre production in the last two years as they have realised that they were more succesful fibre artists than painters.

The move to fibre sculpture: Lena Yarinkura and the next generation

Throughout the 1990s, artists Lena Yarinkura and her mother Lena Djammarrayku (now deceased) have extended the medium of fibre with their pandanus sculptures or paperbark figures. For example, Lena Yarinkura makes camp dogs from bodies of pandanus twined in the same technique utilised by weavers when making conical baskets. When making such sculptures, Yarinkura then stuffs the twined pandanus forms with paperbark and paints the surface with ochre. In using her weaving skills to make three-dimensional representations, she has adapted a traditional technique to explore new narrative possibilities for expressing mythological themes or illustrating stories from the bush. Lena Yarinkura won the Wandjuk Marika Three-dimensional Award in 1997 with a family of yawkyawks1 made in a similar technique. Until 2002, only Lena Yarinkura and her mother were producing fibre sculptures. In 2002, a new generation of Rembarrnga artists was learning to make camp dogs. The public did not respond too well as they felt that the new camp dogs were not innovative enough and they still wanted Lena's work, not the works by some unknown artists. After communicating with artists and explaining that copying Lena was possibly not the best solution and would not help them or the arts centre, artists kept working and learning the techniques. Some of them started to make new animals. For example, Jill Yirindili started to make turtles, prawns and crabs. Sylvia Campion is now making pigs in the coiled style. The inventiveness of these artists has no limit and new forms and works are produced all the time.

This resulted in a number of exhibitions dedicated to fibre sculptures and now Maningrida has a strong reputation as a centre for innovative fibre art production. Artists have managed to convince collectors that their fibre production is simply a 'must have' in any decent contemporary Aboriginal art collection.

New directions and how artists have redefined the art of fibre

In 2003, Kuninjku artist Marina Murdilnga brought to the arts centre a new form of pandanus sculpture: a flat yawkyawk made from knotted pandanus on a jungle vine frame, painted with natural pigments. This was revolutionary and never seen before. She made a second one, this time with dyed pandanus and feathers. This work was entered in the 21st NATSIAA awards. It did not win but was noticed by the public and triggered a huge demand for her work. She too, in turn, inspired six other artists who are using this particular technique to create not only yawkyawks but also different animals. Just this year, stingrays, butterflies and crocodiles have been produced. It seems that there is no limit, no restraint in the production of fibre sculptural forms.

Artists have confidence in the work they are doing and are constantly pushing boundaries. The response by the public is playing a key role in encouraging artists to keep exploring the medium of fibre.

Marketing strategies

Maningrida Arts and Culture (MAC) is promoting and marketing the fibre production by using a wide range of commercial strategies. MAC responsibility starts by providing feedback and encouragement to artists. Since the 1980s MAC has striven to promote fibre with notable projects and partnerships with Museums. For example, the Maningrida collection which the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) holds in trust for the community of Maningrida is of great significance. The collection consists of over 600 works in fibre but also includes bark paintings that clearly illustrate the ancestral origins and use of fibre items. The works were collected in the late 1980s with the close involvement of the Maningrida artists. A unique agreement between the MCA and the Maningrida community was set up which allows the Maningrida people to retain the ownership of their cultural property. It also ensured the maintenance of a close relationship between the MCA and the Maningrida community to document and to promote the collection over the years. Placing the collection in the Museum of Contemporary Art has also contributed in the promotion of these items as contemporary art. In 2003, MAC curated the exhibition 'Maningrida threads' at the MCA. Together with the earlier works from the MCA's Collection, thirty new works made between 2002 and 2003 were included: large fish-trap and drag net forms in fibre, fibre sculptures as well as bark paintings and etchings depicting fibre items and animal forms cast in metal. This exhibition was highly successful and many art lovers started to collect fibre sculptures from the Maningrida region.

In entering fibre artists in awards and prizes, MAC has positioned artists like Lena Yarinkura, Bob Burruwal, Lorna Jin-gubarrangunyja, Marina Murdilnga and more recently Anniebell Marrgamarrnga, who has a yawkyawk in this year's Telstra Art Award, as senior Maningrida artists. This has also enabled MAC to do more fibre exhibitions over the years with galleries such as Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi which holds a Maningrida fibre show every year. Showing fibre sculptures and fish traps has also made the inclusion of more traditional fibre items such as dilly bags or string bags possible in group exhibitions. It enables MAC to present the more traditional items in a fine art context and exploit on their rarity and uniqueness. Another strategy has been to present paintings, sculptures and fibre together in the same show which has proven successful.

MAC also sells a lot of fibre production through its shop in Darwin which opened in 2004. The purpose of the shop was partly to promote and sell fibre works to both tourists and collectors. MAC has chosen to display the fibre works in a fine art gallery like manner to make the baskets look like collector's items rather than a souvenir from Australia. This has also proven successful and frequently demand exceeds supply for fibre objects.

MAC has also been involved in public art commissions in recent years involving works by fibre artists. In 1999, Mumeka women made dilly bags and fish net fences that were later translated in metal. They are now in an installation at Sydney International airport. James Lyuna and Melba Gunjarrwanga are currently working on a commission for the Darwin Entertainment Centre. They are creating a fibre structure for the ceiling of the veranda that will also be translated in metal. A floating fish trap will also be part of the future installation. The participation of fibre artists in such projects enables them to promote and display their talent and skills as fibre practitioners.


MAC artists have managed to partly overcome the 'fibre problem'2 through innovation, creating new art forms and focusing on quality. What is happening in Maningrida at the moment in terms of fibre sculpture is extraordinary. The healthy competition between artists and their desire to participate in exciting projects and exhibitions will only result in more astonishing works being produced in the near future.

Apolline Kohen
Arts Director, Maningrida Arts and Culture
August 2006


Apolline Kohen is currently Arts Director at Maningrida Arts and Culture, and is responsible for its exhibition program and daily operations of the arts centre. Kohen has initiated two major international projects for Maningrida Arts and Culture: the exhibition In the heart of Arnhem Land: Myth and the making of Aboriginal art, Musee de l'Hotel-Dieu, Mantes-La-Jolie, France (June-October 2001) and the cultural exchange Crossings between indigenous artists from Maningrida and French artists (2001 and 2003) which resulted in the presentation of a mixed media performance at the 2003 Darwin festival.


  1. 3 dimensional figurative forms
  2. Refer to Jon Altman and Tim Acker's paper presented at 'Selling Yarns' conference in August 2006.